ROBERT COTTRELL | ALTERNATIVE MEDIA | Looking Back at ‘The Village Voice’: ‘The Freaks Came Out to Write’

By Robert Cottrell | The Rag Blog | May 8, 2024

[Robert Cottrell will be Thorne Dreyer’s guest on Rag Radio, Friday, May 10, 2-3 p.m. on KOOP-FM 91.7-FM in Austin, and streamed on, where they will discuss the Voice and this review.]

Tricia Romano’s intriguing oral history, The Freaks Came Out to Write: The Definitive History of the Voice, the Radical Paper that Changed American Culture (2024), relates the rise and fall of one of America’s earliest and most influential alternative publications. Presented in generally chronological fashion, this lengthy tome relates general shifts that the Voice, its initial intended audience — lower Manhattan — and the nation experienced during a six-decade span beginning with the mid-1950s. Both well-known figures and others, undoubtedly not easily recognizable to readers of The Rag Blog, including the author of this piece, and the goings-on at the Voice enliven the 530 pages of Romano’s endearing but often critical tribute.

The first issue of the Village Voice, 12-pages long and selling for five cents an issue, was published by psychologist Ed Fancher, freelance writer Dan Wolf, and author Norman Mailer, all combat veterans, on October 26, 1955. Acclaimed for his WWII novel, The Naked and the Dead, Mailer desired that the Voice, which Fancher considered “a religious thing,” prove “outrageous” and afford “a little speed to that moral and sexual revolution which is yet to come upon us.” His introductory column informed the Voice’s audience, “I will become an (sic) habitual assassin-and-lover columnist who will have something superficial or vicious or inaccurate to say about many of the things under the sun, and who knows but what some of the night.” Regulars soon included Mailer, jazz critic Nat Hentoff, and cartoonist Jules Feiffer, while James Baldwin, E.E. Cummings, Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, Katherine Anne Porter, Ezra Pound, and Martin Luther King Jr., contributed to the paper.

The Voice’s emergence and ready ability to draw on intellectual and artistic heavyweights was remarkable as was its ability to thrive as the domestic Cold War was only starting to slacken and the American left was at low ebb. In the early part of the 20th century, the Lyrical Left had birthed vibrant, alternative publications like The Masses (1911-1917) and The Liberator (1919-1924) in Greenwich Village, extolling antimilitarism, sexual emancipation, women’s rights, cultural liberation, and socialism, while the Midwest-spawned Appeal to Reason (1895-1922), a fount for the Socialist Party of America, maintained a massive circulation before U.S. entrance into WWI. Heavy-handed actions by both state actors and vigilantes crushed that early American left, but the continued appeal of socialism, fear of fascism, and the Great Depression enabled another radical surge, later labeled the Old Left, to unfold by the 1930s and throughout WWII. Once again, repression crippled the nation’s radical movements, although civil rights and peace activists, along with cultural and intellectual dissidents, engaged in determined campaigns and offered withering condemnations of Cold War America.

Despite the existence of few recent models such as the short-lived and by then defunct anarchist-driven Politics (1944-1949), steered by Dwight Macdonald, and I.F. Stone’s Weekly (1953-1971), a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter initially boasting a small but influential circulation, Fancher, Wolf, and Mailer began publishing The Village Voice in Greenwich Village. Intertwining the remembrances of staffers, including the three founders, The Freaks Came Out to Write conveys both the uncertainty and the excitement generated by a publication originally designed for those dwelling in a small sector of Manhattan that had long nurtured free thinkers and dissidents of various stripes.  According to Fancher, all kinds of talented writers and photographers joined the Voice by “just walking in the door.” Soon working there were HubCaps columnist Michael Smith, dance critic Jill Johnston, Off-Broadway proponent Jerry Tallmer, Washington Square Park savior Mary Perot Nichols, and photojournalist Fred W. McDarrah.

The 1960s helped to both elevate and transform the paper, which ironically benefitted from a crippling newspaper strike. Influenced by the unfolding of New Journalism, the Voice offered narrative treatments, first-person accounts, and astonishingly talented writers, artists, and photographers delving into the arts and politics. Jack Newfield tracked the seamy side of NYC politics and labor organizations. Jonas Mekas, the Voice’s first film critic, documented Andy Warhol’s artistry and antics. Susan Brownmiller and Vivian Gornick related the impact of Black performers and poets like James Brown and Leroi Jones (later, Amiri Baraka) when few others did. Robert Christgau and Richard Goldstein delivered authentic rock criticism. Good friends Don McNeill, Jim Fouratt, and Lucian K. Truscott IV captured something of the era’s zeitgeist, exploring the counterculture and various movements. Truscott’s “Gay Power Comes to Sheridan Square” followed the Stonewall Riots that helped to usher in gay liberation while employing the sexist language then in use such as “the forces of faggotry.”

That decade — the 1960s — was when the underground press, at least some of its progenitors influenced by the Voice, flourished. The underground press, originating with the Los Angeles Free Press, Fifth Estate (Detroit), the East Village Other, the Berkeley Barb, the San Francisco Oracle, and The Rag, evangelized for both the counterculture and the Movement. Soon, hundreds of underground publications cropped up, some transitory, with others like The Rag operating as both a repository for radical ideas and a community, in the face of antagonistic, sometimes dangerous endeavors.

Strong-willed personalities and highly opinionated individuals invariably resulted in factions and turnovers at underground publications, including the Voice. So did shifting currents as in the case of both the gay liberation and women’s movements, Romano relates. Brownmiller, a member of New York Radical Women, recalled being “the first person to write about abortion” while contending, “Make no mistake, the oppressor was Man”; she also remembered a “new rape consciousness.” Referring to radical feminists, with whom she identified, Gornick prophesied, “The Next Great Moment in History is Theirs.” For her part, longtime staffer Johnston exemplified lesbian separatism, contesting founder Mailer’s strident misogyny. Karen Durbin, a new editor arriving during the mid-70s, discussed the difficulty of “a woman in her late middle age to be alone and still integrated into society.” By that period, the Voice increasingly served as a forum for the Village’s growing gay community but also featured Lester Bangs’s and Greil Marcus’s extolling of Patti Smith, Talking Heads, or other performers at CBGB. The Voice spotlighted New Journalism icons James Ridgeway, Wayne Barrett, Alex Cockburn, Michael Daly, and Joe Conason, Andrew Sarris’s film critiques, and the purported “Stalinist feminists” Durbin and Ellen Willis.

Notwithstanding the growing number of women staffers, the Voice long remained dominated by white men. However, increasingly influential Black writers, both gay and straight, male and female, joined the paper, helping to steer it in new directions. By the end of the 1970s, music and cultural critic Stanley Crouch became, somewhat amazingly, the Voice’s first Black staffer. The editorial staff remained largely monochromatic, while Goldstein reflected, “Even the cleaners were white.” Editor in chief David Schneiderman promoted Thulani Davis to senior editor, and the paper soon added the gifted Greg Tate and Nelson George. Not surprisingly, the Voice began to track the city’s burgeoning hip culture, including graffiti, rap, hip hop, and Black culture in various guises. That continued with the hiring of younger Black writers and editors like Lisa Jones, James Hannaham, Colin Whitehead, Lisa Kennedy, Ben Mapp, Gary Dauphin, and Hilton Als. Much of this occurred or began, ironically enough, during the period when the journalistic mogul Rupert Murdoch owned the Voice.

New York City itself was undergoing startling changes, among them the lack of affordability for less affluent individuals and families. Obviously touched by the recent death of Andy Warhol, columnist Michael Musto delivered a front-page warning, “Death of Downtown,” appearing on April 28, 1987, relating Manhattan’s high cost of living and the retreat of “a lot of bohemia into the boroughs and ‘burbs.” The Voice too continued to experience transfers of ownership, invariably leading to concerns among staffers that the new bosses failed to understand the paper’s late, great history and ambiance. Others were hardly enamored with the publication, resulting in repeated bomb scares and former ally Mayor Ed Koch’s charge, “Those people at the Village Voice, they’re animals.” What proved particularly devastating for the Voice and many of its readers was the AIDS epidemic that the paper reported on early and helped “to light a fire up our ass and start fighting for our lives again, literally,” Musto stated. Often goading the Voice was gay activist and playwright Larry Kramer, who founded ACT UP, the militant group spurring street actions that the paper recounted.

As the 1980s neared an end, the Voice, following Jonathan Z. Larsen’s lead, began dissecting “more global” events. Believing “the Village doesn’t exist anymore as a place,” the new editor in chief nevertheless reasoned that “as a sensibility, it very much exists.” Moreover, “that sensibility — dissident, cynical, downtown sensibility” prevailed “across the country, if not the world.” Not surprisingly then, Larsen sent Voice reporters Dan Bischoff, Guy Trebay, Sylvia Plachy, James Hamilton, and Conason to narrate stories across the globe, including from Europe as the Wall came down and Tiananmen Square amid protests and the imposition of martial law. Closer to home, the Voice reported on the beginning of gentrification, the battle over Tompkins Square Park, the scourge of crack, racial murders, and the Central Park Five, accused of raping and beating a female jogger in Central Park. Senior editor Michael Caruso, who headed the sports section, reflected on the paper’s pioneering of sabermetrics. At the same time, the Voice proved “a very antijock kind of place . . . . We were such a weird animal. We weren’t apples or oranges. We were like a kumquat.”

Then, during the 1990s, the Voice, according to Caruso, “became part of the mainstream,” losing “a lot of its cultural importance.” The New York Times, for instance, began “covering art, style, and the back-of-the-paper stuff” like the Voice (Truscott). Nevertheless, the Voice’s art coverage remained superb, thanks to such writers and editors as Jerry Saltz, Roberta Smith, Jeff Weinstein, Gary Indiana, Vince Aletti, and Peter Schjeldahl. Similarly, Jim Hoberman, Manohla Dargis, Amy Taubin, and Georgia Brown examined then thriving independent films. Peter Noel offered “Black advocacy journalism.”

Embittered competition with the hated New York Press resulted in a decision to offer the Voice, which now relied even more heavily on advertising, for free. More staff changes occurred, with Don Forst brought on as editor in chief “to discipline the children.” Loved by many due to “his rebellious nature and poking an eye at authority,” Forst had early referred to Goldstein as “the commie, pinko, faggot Village Voice editor.” Hoberman was one who despised Forst, including for his decision to fire the brilliant and finally reasonably compensated Feiffer. On the other hand, he allowed longtime staffer C. Carr to continue exploring performance art and agreed to finance Mark Schoofs’s extended stay in Africa to analyze AIDS’ impact there.

The Voice’s dependency on classifieds, many highly personal and sexualized, proved ruinous following the emergence of the internet and the appearance of Craigslist. Meanwhile, the city’s tenor shifted after the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Real estate ads plummeted, never to return fully. Forst kicked out Goldstein, whom he had decried as “Slut Boy.” Another transfer of ownership and control to New Times’ operatives led to mass firings with Hentoff, investigative journalist Sydney Schanberg, Christgau, Hoberman, and senior editor Lynn Yaeger among those let go. As publisher Judy Miszner put it, “They wanted to have the Voice, the crown jewel. They wanted bragging rights on it, but they did everything they could to destroy it.” The last printed edition appeared on September 21, 2017, followed by less than a year of online deliveries. By early 2021, a Voice website reappeared, with a print edition soon following. The website, containing both recent news and “greatest hits” of a kind, recently featured, for example, Tom Carson’s article, “Our Nixon: Whose Life Was It Anyway?” Frank Pizzoli’s “Can New York Turn the House Blue?” and R.C. Baker’s earlier “Beaten or Stoned? Was 1968 the Beginning of the End of the Sixties?”

Thus, the Village Voice soldiers on, albeit in decidedly truncated fashion. Its transformation parallels the difficulties confronting the alternative press across the country, including in my now hometown of Chico, California. There, the highly regarded Chico News & Review (1977-), like its sister publication, the Sacramento News & Review, has gone fully online, a result occurring in the wake of a sharp drop in advertising revenue induced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

[Robert C. “Bob” Cottrell, author of several books on American radicalism, including Izzy: A Biography of I.F. Stone and, most recently, The Activist 1960s: Striving for Political and Social Empowerment in America.]

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